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In re Estate of Fields

Supreme Court of Alaska

September 4, 2009

In the Matter of the ESTATE OF Wayne Colyer FIELDS.

As Modified on Denial of Rehearing Dec. 16, 2009.

Robert A. Sparks, Law Office of Robert A. Sparks, Fairbanks, for Appellants Wayne Fields and Joseph Fields.

David York, Law Office of David York, Fairbanks, for Appellant Elizabeth Cook.

Cory R. Borgeson, Borgeson & Burns, PC, Fairbanks, for Appellee Charles Lee McKelvey Fields, Personal Representative of the Estate of Wayne Colyer Fields.

Before : FABE, Chief Justice, MATTHEWS, EASTAUGH, CARPENETI, and WINFREE, Justices.

OPINION

WINFREE, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

Wayne Colyer Fields, an Alaska resident, conveyed real property in Washington to his four adult children. After Fields's death his children engaged in probate litigation over the removal of one of them as personal representative and the intent of the Washington property conveyance. Following post-trial findings, conclusions, and recommendations by the standing master, the superior court denied removal of the personal representative and imposed a constructive trust over the property, ordering Fields's children to convey their interests in the property to a trust referenced in Fields's will. Three of Fields's children appeal on numerous grounds. We affirm the decision denying removal of the personal representative and, with one caveat, the decision imposing the constructive trust over the Washington property-we remand for further proceedings to confirm whether two of Fields's children received due process-compliant post-trial notice and opportunity to be heard Before the superior court entered its final order on that issue.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

A. Facts

In the 1930s Fields and his wife, Edna Mae, purchased six acres of scenic waterfront property in Washington, where they lived for a few years. Fields and his wife then kept the Washington property for family recreational purposes. Fields had four children: Elizabeth, Joseph, Wayne Jr., and Charles. Following their mother's death, the children became concerned that their father might convey the Washington property outside the family and they convinced him to convey the property to them. Fields transferred the Washington property to his four children in 1987. Whether Fields intended the transfer to be unconditional or in trust for his descendants is at the heart of this case.

Fields died in 1990 at the age of 82. He left a will executed on June 12, 1980, the validity of which has never been challenged. Specific bequests were made to each of the four children, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Library, and Elizabeth's husband. The residuary estate, including real and personal property, was left to " The Wayne Colyer Fields Trust," but apparently no trust document had ever been executed.

Charles was named as executor in the will. Charles filed for informal probate of the will and appointment as personal representative in January 1991. The matter was referred to Standing Master Susan Paterson the same day, and she signed orders for the informal probate of the will and Charles's appointment as personal representative of Fields's estate.

Standing Master Paterson retired and was replaced by Standing Master Alicemary L. Closuit, who gave notice to Charles in May 1996 that absent an objection the estate proceedings would be administratively closed due to inactivity. Superior Court Judge Ralph R. Beistline administratively closed the file in October 1997 without discharging Charles as personal representative.

The siblings continued to discuss, and dispute, the status of the Washington property. In 1999 Charles concluded that he should create a trust document for the trust referenced in Fields's will. In 2002 Charles sent a letter to his siblings asking them to execute quitclaim deeds to transfer their interests in the Washington property to the estate so that a trust could be established, the property could be conveyed to it, and the estate could be closed. Elizabeth, Joseph, and Wayne Jr. questioned the need for a conveyance and refused to execute deeds.

B. Procedural History

In December 2003 attorney Barry Donnellan entered an appearance on Elizabeth's behalf and filed a motion to re-open the estate proceedings. Donnellan also filed two other documents, each entitled " Joinder in Motion to Re-Open the Case," one signed by Joseph and the other by Wayne Jr. (each of which listed personal addresses and telephone numbers). The joinders were on Donnellan's pleading paper and stated: " I am a son of Wayne Colyer Fields, deceased. I join in the motion by my sister Elizabeth Jane Cook to re-open this case."

At the same time Donnellan filed a petition on Elizabeth's behalf to remove Charles as personal representative pursuant to AS 13.16.295(a),[1] alleging that Charles had neglected to distribute the estate's interest in real property in Fairbanks, refused to provide information about the estate, and denied Elizabeth access to her father's memorabilia at the Fairbanks residence. Donnellan certified service on Charles, Joseph, and Wayne Jr., including notice of a hearing on the removal petition set for February 20, 2004.

Charles stipulated to the motion to re-open the estate and it was granted in January 2004. The stipulation was signed by Donnellan and by Charles's attorney, Cory Borgeson, with certified service on Joseph and Wayne Jr. The order re-opening the estate, signed by Standing Master Closuit, was distributed only to Donnellan and Borgeson.[2] In light of Judge Beistline's resignation, the proceedings were re-assigned to Superior Court Judge Mark I. Wood; notice to that effect was distributed to Donnellan and Borgeson.

Charles opposed removal as personal representative and asked for leave to conduct discovery and for a trial date. Charles described his three siblings as " the three petitioners" and blamed the delays in estate administration on their unwillingness to cooperate in establishing a trust for the conveyance of Fields's residuary estate. Charles also alleged that when Fields deeded the Washington property to his children, they agreed to hold it in trust and act as co-trustees in managing it, and he asked the court to establish an implied trust if no express trust was found to exist. Charles served his filing on Joseph and Wayne Jr.

Standing Master Closuit held the previously noticed hearing on February 20, 2004. Despite having notice of the hearing, Joseph and Wayne Jr. did not attend. In response to a question about what the " siblings" wanted, Donnellan answered that all remaining assets should be distributed. Standing Master Closuit set a June 10 trial for the petition to remove Charles as personal representative, noting that " [t]hree heirs want immediate distribution" and stating that if Charles filed a cross-petition on the trust issue, everything would be tried at the same time.

Charles later filed a formal cross-petition to establish an express trust to receive the balance of the estate after satisfaction of Fields's specific bequests. The cross-petition asked the court to " recognize the existence of the Fields Family Trust," order the " appropriate parties" to transfer the Washington and Fairbanks real property to the trust, and name Charles as trustee of the trust. Charles served Joseph and Wayne Jr. with the cross-petition papers.

Charles filed a witness list naming Elizabeth, Joseph, and Wayne Jr. Donnellan, on behalf of Elizabeth, moved to stay the cross-petition. Charles filed an amended witness list. Charles subpoenaed Elizabeth for a deposition and she moved to have it quashed. Charles opposed Elizabeth's motion to stay the cross-petition. Joseph and Wayne Jr. were served papers relevant to these actions.

In May 2004 Judge Wood denied Elizabeth's motion to stay the cross-petition and directed that the cross-petition be heard with the removal petition, and also issued an order granting leave for Charles to depose " the other parties in this matter." The orders, both of which had been recommended by Standing Master Closuit, were distributed to Donnellan and Borgeson.

At a June 4, 2004, status conference with Donnellan and Borgeson present, Standing Master Closuit reset trial for October 13 and 14. A written order confirming the new trial dates was issued the same day and distributed to Donnellan and Borgeson. Additional motions were filed regarding out-of-state depositions, all of which were served on Joseph and Wayne Jr. The resulting orders were distributed to Donnellan and Borgeson. It appears from the record that Charles's attorney deposed at least Joseph shortly Before trial.

Trial took place as scheduled Before Standing Master Closuit. Charles and Elizabeth were present with their attorneys, Borgeson and Donnellan. Joseph attended but chose to sit in the spectator benches. Elizabeth had the opportunity to put her case on first, but Donnellan stated Elizabeth was " just going to rely on the file" for her petition to remove Charles as personal representative. Borgeson then presented Charles's case both in opposition to the removal petition and in support of the cross-petition regarding the Washington property and the unformed residuary trust, calling two witnesses and introducing fourteen exhibits into evidence. No rebuttal witness testimony or documentary evidence was presented by Donnellan, and counsel moved directly to closing arguments. Aside from Donnellan's cross-examination of Charles's witnesses, the only evidence presented at trial regarding the Washington property and the unformed residuary trust was that presented by Charles. Elizabeth and Charles filed post-trial briefing and served Joseph and Wayne Jr.

In December 2004 Standing Master Closuit issued findings of fact and conclusions of law and her recommendations. She found that the " family" had not prevailed by a preponderance of the evidence on the issue of removing Charles as the personal representative and recommended that the petition to remove Charles be denied. She also found that when Fields conveyed the Washington property to his children, they agreed to hold the property in trust for the benefit of all of his and Edna Mae's descendants:

It is clear from the credible evidence ... that the family was very aware of their agreement to place the property in trust for the descendants of the decedent. The family, despite this promise, never created a trust document. Their position now is that it is not held in trust but is owned by them outright.

She concluded that the siblings would be " unjustly enriched" if allowed to retain or sell the Washington property with no restrictions, and recommended that the superior court order the " family" to deed the Washington property into Fields's estate. She further found that Fields's will referenced a trust for distribution of the residue of his estate, that the trust had never been finalized, and that as personal representative, Charles had a duty " to create by document a trust and to transfer property into that trust."

The final page of the standing master's report gave notice that, pursuant to Alaska Civil Rule 53, objections to the findings and recommendations must be filed within ten days. This notice included detailed instructions on objection procedures. A copy of the standing master's report was distributed to Donnellan and Borgeson, but not to Joseph or Wayne Jr.

No objections were raised to Standing Master Closuit's December 2004 findings and conclusions or her recommendations. In April 2005 Judge Wood denied the petition to remove Charles as the personal representative. In June 2005 Judge Wood entered an order finding jurisdiction and adopting Standing Master Closuit's recommendations regarding the Washington property. Judge Wood then imposed " a constructive trust to maintain the [Washington] property for the benefit of decedent's descendants," directed Charles to establish an express trust, and ordered Fields's children to convey their interests in the Washington property to that trust.

Judge Wood found that Elizabeth, Joseph, and Wayne Jr. " submitted to the Court's jurisdiction when [Elizabeth] filed the petition to remove the personal representative in this matter" and thus it " has personal jurisdiction over the parties." As to subject matter jurisdiction, the court stated:

Where a court has personal jurisdiction over a party, it may indirectly affect title to property located in another state through its power over the individuals under the court's jurisdiction by requiring the party to execute a conveyance of land. Additionally this Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the estate pursuant to AS 13.06.065 and AS 13.16.025.... Thus, because the Court has personal jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter jurisdiction over the estate and because this is an equitable action, the Court has jurisdiction to follow the Standing Master's recommendations. (Internal quotations and citations omitted.)

In September 2005 attorney Robert Sparks entered an appearance in the proceedings for Joseph and Wayne Jr., and they moved to set aside the two decisions (collectively " the judgment" ) pursuant to Rule 60(b)(1), (3), and (4).[3] As to Rule 60(b)(4), they argued that the judgment was void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, lack of personal jurisdiction over Wayne Jr., and various violations of due process. Charles opposed the motion, submitting a number of e-mails among Elizabeth, Joseph, and Wayne Jr. demonstrating their collective efforts to remove Charles as personal representative and to contest Charles's efforts to require them to convey their interests in the Washington property to the estate. Judge Wood denied the motion for relief from the judgment. Joseph and Wayne Jr. then moved for reconsideration. Judge Wood did not rule on this motion, and it was deemed denied under Civil Rule 77(k)(4).

Joseph and Wayne Jr. appeal the denial of their Rule 60(b) motion only as it relates to the Washington property. Elizabeth separately appeals the denial of the petition to remove Charles as the personal representative and the decision to adopt the standing master's recommendations about the Washington property. Joseph and Wayne Jr. are also participating in Elizabeth's appeal. We consolidated the appeals.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review the denial of a motion to remove a personal representative under AS 13.16.295 for abuse of discretion,[4] and will overturn the superior court's findings of fact if they are clearly erroneous. [5] We review the grant of an equitable remedy, such as a constructive trust, for abuse of discretion, but we review de novo any underlying questions of law and the application of law to facts.[6] We generally review a superior court's decision to deny relief under Rule 60(b) for abuse of discretion, reversing only if we are left with a definite and firm conviction based on the whole record that the superior court made a mistake. [7] But we review de novo a decision to deny relief under Rule 60(b)(4) because the validity of a judgment is a question of law.[8] " We may affirm the superior court on any basis supported by the record, even if that basis was not considered by the court below or advanced by any party." [9]

We review questions regarding personal and subject matter jurisdiction de novo because " [j]urisdictional issues are questions of law subject to this court's independent judgment." [10] Questions of due process also are reviewed de novo.[11] We adopt " the rule of law that is most persuasive in light of precedent, ...


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